Libraries Have Secrets: The Private Rooms of North Jersey's Public Libraries

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by Jim Beckerman, courtesy of The Record

Libraries – shhhhh! – have secrets.

Including, probably, yours. Just ask your librarian about the books that don’t circulate.  Books you don’t know about. Books not in any catalog or database.

Books too rare, too wonderful, too terrible, too ridiculous or too scandalous to lend out.

“This door is always locked,” says Sarah Kiefer, local history librarian, as she directs visitors into the sanctum sanctorum: the locked room behind the locked room at the Ridgewood (NJ) Public Library.

Here, kept at a regulated temperature of between 63 and 65 degrees, are the treasures of the Local History Room of the library’s Bolger Heritage Center.

The prize of the collection is an 8½-inch -by-14-inch volume, bound in embossed leather with brass clasps – dating, best estimate, from 1602. Open it – carefully, carefully – and you will see, written in antique typeface, words that are familiar to any English major: “Whan that Aprill with his shoures sote...”

“The Canterbury Tales” is just part of “THE WORKES OF GEFFREY CHAVCER, newly Printed, with diuers additions,” a volume that has been in the Ridgewood collection, apparently, since the 1940s. “It’s not viewable outside the archives,” Kiefer says.

How did it get there? No one seems quite sure. A bill of sale from March 4, 1944, indicates that the volume was sold from a “D.M. Beach, 52 High Street, Salisbury” for 7 pounds, 10 shillings, but how it ended up in Bergen County remains a mystery. “I would imagine this was an item that came to us as a gift,” says Ridgewood Library Director Nancy Greene. “We would never have gone out trying to buy that.”

There’s more. Old bound volumes, dating from 1844 and 1845, of Graham’s Magazine, featuring first-time-in-print contributions by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Elizabeth Barrett (Browning), and one “Edgar A. Poe.” Also, from 1850, Household Words, a magazine edited by another author you may possibly have heard of: Charles Dickens. “It’s amazing the little treasures you can find in your local library,” Kiefer says.

We tend to think of libraries – almost by definition – as places to borrow from. Hence, “lending library.” But it wasn’t always so – and isn’t entirely, even now.

Once, libraries were private – the preserve of universities, monasteries, and rich noblemen. They were mysterious, arcane: remember the medieval library in the 1986 Sean Connery thriller “The Name of the Rose,” laid out like a labyrinth, to which only the head librarian knew the secret? Even when public libraries were established, for a long time they weren’t free-access. You had to ask the librarian for the book you wanted: a page would disappear in the back and get it for you. You could be refused for any reason, or no reason. It was only in the late 19th century that the stacks of American libraries were opened up to the public – a great victory, as many saw it, for democracy.

“Until the [Andrew] Carnegie libraries were built, most public libraries had closed stack areas,” says Dan O’Connor, Library Science professor at Rutgers University. “Books were considered too expensive just to have on shelves.”

But even today, vestiges of the old system remain. One-of-a-kind material (often local history), rare or valuable books, things so weird and wonderful that librarians couldn’t bear to throw them out – much of this stuff can be found in locked cabinets, vaults and restricted rooms, to be viewed only in the library and – sometimes – only under supervision.

Which brings us to a locked room in the back of the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack. “NO ADMITTANCE,” it says on the door.

 Informally called “The Singleton Room” by the staff, in honor of a past reference librarian, it is here – amid many another quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore – you will find a brown folder with a familiar logo on the cover. A gentleman rabbit in a bow-tie. “Playboy.”

Only this Playboy magazine, dating from 1970, has no pictures. Nor print, beyond a simple table of contents.

It is in Braille. And in case you’re wondering about the tactile possibilities of a Braille centerfold, be advised: the Braille edition of Hugh Hefner’s magazine contains no cheesecake. People really did read this Playboy for the articles.

“I have no idea what this is doing in the library,” says Debbie Bock, head of reference at Johnson Public Library. “But it’s so unusual no one ever wants to throw it out. It doesn’t circulate. There’s no way of even putting it in the catalog.”

One volume that did circulate, rather incredibly, is now kept in a storage room at the River Edge Library. The two-volume set of the 1885 first edition of “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant” — autographed by Ulysses S. Grant — was apparently being lent out as late as the 1960s.

On one of the front pages is the inscription: “These volumes are dedicated to the American soldier and sailor. U.S. Grant. New York City. May 23, 1885.” On the spine is printed: B. Gra. V. 1. “I guess they didn’t think about this sort of thing in those days,” says reference librarian Margaret Churley.

Some other things in that back room: An 1895 first printing of the novel “Trilby,” from which the Trilby hat and the term “Svengali” – for a mentoring mastermind – are derived. Also a copy of a Bob Dylan poetry volume, “Tarantula,” signed by the author: “Best Wishes, Bob Dylan.” “We really don’t know what to do with it,” says Daragh O’Connor, library director of River Edge.

In many cases, the oldest material on the shelves goes back to the private collections of benefactors who endowed these public libraries a century or more ago.

But there’s also another category of book that didn’t – perhaps still doesn’t – circulate.

Forbidden books, restricted books — to be blunt, sex books – are something that librarians can be loath to talk about. Understandably. Librarians have often, and proudly, been in the front trenches on First Amendment battles. But it’s also true that many libraries have had policies through the years that restricted access, not just to books that might be considered “pornographic,” but even to scientific studies of sexual behavior like the Kinsey and Masters and Johnson reports.

“Oh yeah, the sex drawer,” says Allison Moonitz, director of the Bergenfield Library. “This was in the late ’80s, early ’90s, way before my time.”

Among the things kept in that locked drawer: the Howard Stern book “Private Parts,” volumes of poetry, and a biography of Jim Morrison. A certain elderly librarian – now deceased — would actually interview patrons before allowing them to see these books.

“She wouldn’t let you look at these books unless you passed the interview,” recalls senior library assistant Peggy Flefleh, who was there at the time. “I remember once a college kid wanted to look at ‘Private Parts,’ and she said, ‘What do you want to look at it for?’ He said, ‘I just want to read it, I want to take it out.’ She said, ‘Why?’ It was very awkward and silly and funny looking back.”

Remember the flap over the Madonna book “Sex”? Nancy Greene of the Ridgewood Public Library was at the Mahwah Library when that came out in 1992.

“When it came in, we did not put it out for the general public,” she says. “We had some kind of card on the desk: please inquire if you want a copy ... When it came back, you had to leaf through all the pages to make sure that nothing was torn out or defaced.”

Then there are the books so dated, weird or wacky that librarians can’t, in good conscience, keep them on the shelves. But such books, by the same token, are often too fascinating to throw away. They end up in the back room – or in the director’s office.

“I have a number of things we discarded that I thought were too charming to let go,” Greene says.

The prize specimen in her curiosity cabinet: “I’m Glad I’m a Boy! I’m Glad I’m a Girl!” a 1970 picture book by Whitney Darrow Jr. that may or may not have been intended as satire. Some representative quotes: “Boys are doctors, girls are nurses.” “Boys fix things, girls need things fixed.” And, most pertinent for 2016: “Boys are presidents, girls are first ladies.”

“I keep this as an example of why you have to weed things out,” Greene says.